What was the King-Crane Commission of 1919?
Following the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson was dissatisfied with the secret diplomacy of the Great Powers, wishing instead to follow a doctrine of national self-determination. Wilson proposed an Inter-Allied commission to visit the Middle East to determine what the people living there wanted: independence, supervision under the proposed League of Nations Mandate system, or other proposals. He appointed Henry Churchill King, president of Oberlin College, and Charles R. Crane, Chicago businessman and trustee of Robert College in Constantinople, to serve as the American representatives. Although the full commission never assembled due to French and British opposition, the American team, known as the King-Crane Commission, visited the area from June to August 1919.
Dr. Henry Churchill King was a well known American educator, the president of Oberlin College and the author of numerous volumes on theology, education and philosophy. During 1918-1919 he was director of religious work for the YMCA in France prior to joining the Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey, now known as the King-Crane Commission.
Charles R. Crane was a wealthy American Arabist, a philanthropist who had business knowledge of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. His heavy contributions to Wilson’s 1912 campaign led to being named to the 1917 Special Diplomatic Commission to Russia, service as a member of the American Section of the Paris Peace Conference, and the Inter-Allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey in 1919 that now bears his name. Crane later helped finance the first explorations for oil in Saudi Arabia and Yemen and was American Ambassador to China from May 1920 to June 1921.
The Commission’s work covered all of what had been the Turkish empire in the Middle East, not just Syria (which then included today’s Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the disputed territories.) The well-known anti-Zionist predilections of Crane colored the testimony and made its credibility somewhat doubtful. Any question of his objectivity in Palestine was settled by his admiration for Hitler’s Germany — Crane called the Third Reich “the real political bulwark of Christian culture” — and his approval of Stalin’s anti-Jewish purges in Soviet Russia. His biographer described his later life as dominated by:
- “… a most pronounced prejudice…his unbridled dislike of Jews.” Crane “tried…to persuade …President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to shun the counsels of Felix Frankfurter and to avoid appointing other Jews to government posts.” Crane “envisioned a world-wide attempt on the part of the Jews to stamp out all religious life and felt that only a coalition of muslims and Roman Catholics would be strong enough to defeat such designs.”
In 1933 Crane actually proposed to Haj Amin Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, that the Mufti open talks with the Vatican to plan an anti-Jewish campaign. It is significant that the book The Arab Awakening by George Antonius was funded by and dedicated “To Charles R. Crane, aptly nicknamed Harun al-Rashid affectionately.”
The historian James Gelvin in his paper “The Ironic Legacy of the King-Crane Commission” shows how the actions of the Crane team actually suggested the possibility of independence and self-governance to the Arabs of Syria (including Palestine, then known as Southern Syria) leading them to their conclusions, rather than seeking the truth of what their desires were. Given Crane’s anti-Semitic predisposition, it is hardly surprising that he found the Zionists unconvincing and the anti-Zionist views persuasive.
The reservations expressed by Arab leaders and expatriate Americans, and dismissal of counterarguments from the Jewish delegations, led Crane’s Commission to recommend a) the abandonment of American support for a Jewish homeland, b) that further Jewish immigration be severely restricted, and c) that America or Britain govern Palestine. These conclusions were in complete conflict with the Balfour Declarationand the Zionist program.
But two technical advisors to the Commission, Dr. George R. Montgomery, a clergyman with long experience in the region, and Captain William Yale, an expert on Arab affairs connected to the US Paris delegation, filed a formal dissent, advocating a Jewish state in Palestine. That is, the politically connected heads of the Commission, after a limited visit and based on known anti-Semitic views, gave advice that opposed a Jewish state. At the same time, the experienced and knowledgable staff supported the opposite conclusion.
William Yale was the resident agent for the Standard Oil Company, living in Palestine and employed as an observer for the State Department. Yale’s dissent denied the findings of the King-Crane Commission. He felt that Arab nationalism had been manufactured by anti-Zionist zealots, and that the Balfour Declaration ought to be adhered to “because of the many advantages Jewish enterprise would bring to the Middle East.” On the day Yale?s paper arrived in America, Wilson collapsed and the brief was kept secret until 1922. The formal Commission report suffered the same fate.
Trumpeting the conclusions of the King-Crane Commission — without revealing its biased origin, unofficial nature, and the significant dissent from its recommendations — is a favorite tactic of those who favor Palestinian Arab claims. The report was probably never seen by President Wilson and was never officially accepted by the US Government or even published until years later when its conclusions were moot.